Kelly Reichardt teaches film classes at Bard College, but she should also teach economics. Her latest film, Wendy and Lucy, is a devastating thesis on the reality of going dead broke in today’s America, of watching helplessly as every rung on the social ladder snaps in your fist and you begin to plummet toward homelessness and hunger. Michelle Williams, with face scrubbed and hair blackened, plays Wendy, an Alaska-bound drifter who logs each dollar she spends in a little notebook, constantly drawing attention to a finite sum that separates her from beggary and forcing her into indecent deliberations over whether or not to feed her only companion, her dog Lucy. Together, Wendy and Lucy form an almost Eisensteinian pair whose private struggle is society’s shame. Reichardt recently invited Slant down to Manhattan’s Oscilloscope Labs to talk about the film and its political bearings, as well as to debate what success means for an ultra low-budget filmmaker.
Old Joy was very much about the harsh realities people confront in their mid-to-late 30s. What made you want to choose a mid-to-late 20s protagonist for this story?
’Cause that’s the age Michelle was. [laughs]
You know, she could have been older, though it does seem to be in your mid-20s that people get that idea to go work in the cannery, go to Alaska. Everyone I’ve met who has done it seems to have done it around that time. By your 30s you know you don’t have what it takes to work in the fish canneries.
Maybe I’m sheltered, but that goal of “going north to work at the canneries” seemed a bit extreme to me, a Christopher McCandless kind of thing. Did you see Wendy as an extreme personality?
No, I didn’t. I saw her as being a practical personality, but maybe extreme coming from where she comes from, Indiana. I’ve met people when driving across the country by myself and I’d talk to a woman here and there who was working at some kind of food place and they sometimes can’t tell you about the next town, much less about the next state. You just realize that it’s not in some people’s scope to travel far, so I think that’s maybe “other” than her, but if you spend time in Oregon you meet tons of people who’ve spent time in Alaska at the canneries. It’s a pretty common place to go to get started, because you can live there. You get your housing, you get your expenses paid, you’re just working all the time so the idea is that you can get a little nest egg. If this was outside the computer age, she wouldn’t know about that option being from Indiana, but I thought she could have come upon it.
Had she drifted down to North Carolina, where I grew up, her interactions with people would have been less impersonal. Someone would have scooped her up and taken her home for breakfast.
She should have gone south! That’s true, that would have been a smart thing. Though not all the South is like that. Some parts of the South when I’m driving through you feel like a real outsider, it’s not as welcoming. Yeah, but North Carolina is like a big blanket. I think of them each as different, in their own orbit that she goes through. But it’s also why we didn’t really want it to be Portland per se. We wanted it to be Oregon but not Portland, because in Portland she probably would have run into a group of kids who would’ve helped her.
My knowledge of the Pacific Northwest is very fuzzy. Serial killers and grunge music.
Yeah, it’s so funny, where Kurt Cobain is from, you drive into the city and it says “Come As You Are” as, like, the city sign. Like, a really generic city sign. It’s the most government-looking thing and you’re like, what? But wow, what a cold, lonely place. I drove around there when I was scouting Wendy and Lucy and it’s not the South, certainly.
There’s a moment in the film where Wendy passes by a building and I think I saw the word “goner” written on a wall—did you put that there?
No, I’m not that literal. But I used it, so I guess it doesn’t matter if I put it there or not. It was there. After we shot like 18 days with a crew, I made a couple of trips back with Michelle and we just went around to all the locations we had been to and did some pickup shots and re-shot some stuff and the graffiti that had originally been there, which I think shows up earlier in the movie, was gone and “goner” was there. But I’ve since come to find out that that’s a record label. I’ve seen that same graffiti in other places.
By the way, having re-watched Old Joy again recently, are we meant to believe that we’re watching the continuing adventures of Lucy, as she goes from place to place?
No, she’s my dog and so I have her with me. It’s written in because I’m always traveling with her.
You’re a dog person, I take it?
No, not really, I just got hung up on this one dog that I found, but I wasn’t intending to get a dog. I never saw myself as a dog person.
Dogs in movies are always so symbolically loaded. I’m assuming Umberto D. was a big influence on Wendy and Lucy. What else?
A lot of Italian neorealism. We came up with an outline for the story before Jon went off to write the story, before there was a script. We kept saying “This reminds us of something…” and Jon goes “Yeah, it’s Italian neorealism.” And then we started going back and watching some films and “Of course, it’s Umberto D.!” So, sure, that film is a masterpiece. What can you say about that movie? It’s true, Italian neorealism and a lot of the new German cinema that came out. Then the ’60s, the angry young man films from England, the schools of film where the protagonists are the outsiders, the nonromantic people in society and the question of what their worth is is constantly raised throughout the films. Do you have value if you’re of a certain age or income? They also sort of touch on themes like, are we connected? How much should we be helping each other out? Those kinds of questions. Those were all influences, but the main influence was just living in America and watching the divide between the rich and the poor grow so huge. It’s hard to miss.